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Washington's 'secret weapon' Lars Eller delivers in Game 2 win

Washington's 'secret weapon' Lars Eller delivers in Game 2 win

Things looked dire for the Capitals early in Game 2 on Wednesday. Already down 1-0 in the series and 1-0 in the game, Washington had to find a way to come back to beat the Vegas Golden Knights in Vegas and they had to do it without Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov left the game in the first period after getting shaken up by a hit from Brayden McNabb. With 25 points, Kuznetsov leads the NHL this postseason and his loss was a devastating blow.

But even with no Kuznetsov for more than two periods, the Caps were able to mount a comeback and get the 3-2 win over the Golden Knights thanks to the heroics of Braden Holtby and the team's secret weapon: The Tiger.

"[Lars Eller] was outstanding," Nicklas Backstrom said. "He had a great game. He's had a great playoffs so far. It's fun to watch. That's what we need. We need everyone to step up and he really did that tonight."

In response to Kuznetsov's injury, Barry Trotz moved Backstrom up to the top line and Eller to the second. When the team needed a boost on offense, Eller provided one as he had a hand in all three of Washington's goals, scoring the first to tie the game and assisting on the other two.

"He’s a guy who is kind of our secret weapon," Alex Ovechkin said. "It’s hard to play [against him] when he’s on top of his game and when he feels the puck, when he creates the moment for us. He was pretty big for us.”

He even assisted Backstrom with a sweatshirt after the game.

"I couldn't find mine, so I just grabbed his," Backstrom said. "He's sitting next to me."

It is not the first time Eller has been called upon this postseason to take on a top-six role.

When Backstrom suffered an upper-body injury against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Eller filled in at his spot on the second line for four games. Eller's strong play made sure there was no dropoff without Backstrom. The Caps went 3-1 in those games without Backstrom and even managed to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh.

In those four games, Eller recorded two goals and three assists.

“He’s just given more responsibility, and he thrives on it," Jay Beagle said. "That shows the type of person and player that he is. Character. It’s a character thing."

Now with the status of Kuznetsov unclear, it is unknown how long the Caps will need to continue to use Eller in that second-line role. Eller is not Kuznetsov and there is no doubt losing a player that has put up 25 points in 21 games would be a huge blow to Washington if he cannot return.

While an injury to a player as important as Kuznetsov would cripple most teams, however, Washington can take heart in the fact that they have a secret weapon in Eller who, though he cannot replace Kuznetsov, can elevate his game when the team needs him in critical moments.

And the Stanley Cup Final certainly qualifies as being a critical moment.

"It seems like he gets a different confidence when one of me or [Kuznetsov] goes out," Backstrom said. "It's great. He's a great player and he's got that confidence with the puck that he can make plays. That's what we need. He had a hell of a game."


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Key Caps questions: How will Samsonov look in his first season in North America?

Scout Pruski

Key Caps questions: How will Samsonov look in his first season in North America?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: How will Ilya Samsonov play in his first season in North America?

What else is there to say about Samsonov's time in the KHL? In the limited action he saw playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, he looked every bit the starting goalie the Caps hoped he would one day be when they drafted him in the first round of the 2015 draft. Now, finally, he is ready to start his North America career.

What makes the transition from Europe to North America difficult?

First, Samsonov is adjusting to a new country and a new language. Second, the workload in North America is much larger, even in practice.

"He probably saw more shots today than he saw in a month of practice in Russia and this was nothing," director of player development Steve Richmond said during development camp. "For me, that's the biggest thing for him is to learn how to practice in North America."

And then there's the rink size. The game is faster for goalies in North America because of the smaller rink. Scoring chances develop much more quickly and Samsonov will also be dealing with different angles. It also means dealing with a lot more traffic in front of the net. He is going to have to learn more how to track the puck through a screen and to react much more quickly.

I tried to watch Samsonov closely in development camp. His size definitely stood out. He takes up a lot of the net, but is still very athletic and very quick in and out of the butterfly. As big as he is, however, he seems to play very low to compensate for his size which leaves him vulnerable up high at times. He would make a handful of very good saves, then let in a soft one glove side or in the corners because he was playing too low.

Those areas of his game can be improved on with practice so long as you have the skill and Samsonov certainly has that.

Samsonov has been elite at every level he has played and there is no reason to think that won't continue in the AHL. Having said that, there is just too much he needs to adjust to expect him to be ready for the NHL at this point. He needs as much playing time as possible at the AHL level before he is ready. As long as that's where he spends the season, I expect him to put up similar numbers to the 2.31 GAA, .926 save percentage he managed last season in the KHL.

Other key Caps questions:

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Oddsmakers give three Capitals the chance to win MVP in 2018-19

Oddsmakers give three Capitals the chance to win MVP in 2018-19

There are no signs of Alex Ovechkin slowing down heading into his first season after winning a Stanley Cup. Bovada just released their latest odds for the Hart Memorial Trophy (the NHL’s Most Valuable Player Award) and Ovechkin was tied with the third-best odds to win in all of the NHL at 10/1.

He was joined by two other Washington Capitals, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov both at 50/1 odds. 

Here are all the odds for the top 11 players:

Connor McDavid          10/3
Sidney Crosby              13/2
Auston Matthews        10/1
Alex Ovechkin               10/1
Jon Tavares                   10/1
Taylor Hall                     15/1
Nikita Kucherov            15/1
Nathan MacKinnon      15/1
Mark Scheifele              15/1
Anze Kopitar                  18/1
Evgeni Malkin                18/1

The only two players ahead of ‘The Great 8’ are the 21-year-old McDavid and dreaded rival Crosby.

Even with the immense amount of alcohol that has been consumed in the past two months, Ovechkin is still commanding respect in Vegas. It is hard not to when he turns around these intense offseason workouts. At 32, Ovechkin led the NHL in scoring with 49 goals a year ago, the seventh such time he has done so. 

Already the 2018 Conn Smythe winner has three MVP trophies to his name (one more than Crosby) and there is no telling what to expect now that the 11-time All-Star has a Stanley Cup title. 

In his 11 years in the league, Backstrom has never received any votes for the Hart Memorial Trophy. Kuznetsov only has done so once and that was in the 2015-16 season.